Minnesota's Andrei Kirilenko blocks a shot by Charlotte's… (Marlin Levison / MCT )
Dwight Howard (shoulder) will sit out on Friday night as the Lakers (20-26) visit the Minnesota Timberwolves (17-25).
The Wolves have been slammed recently with injuries and have fallen behind the Lakers slightly in the standings. This is the first of three meetings between the two teams this season.
Pau Gasol will start at center in Howard's place with Metta World Peace, along with rookie Robert Sacre, getting the backup minutes at center.
After a letdown in Phoenix, the Lakers have to prove they're still on course. Playing without Howard puts them at a disadvantage, even if the Timberwolves don't have a healthy Kevin Love and Brandon Roy.
Gasol will match up with Nikola Pekovic, who is a solid 6 feet 11, 290 pounds. Pekovic is averaging 16 points a game on 51.1% shooting, along with 8.7 rebounds.
He's a big, strong, physical player. Gasol isn't nearly as strong but he's more versatile. This is an opportunity for Gasol to remind Coach Mike D'Antoni and the Lakers of what he's capable of.
Andrei Kirilenko has had success guarding Kobe Bryant in the past, with his length, agility and defensive savvy. It's been a number of years since the two have played each other. Kirilenko played overseas after leaving the Utah Jazz. With the Wolves he's having a strong year, averaging 13.7 points, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks and 6.6 rebounds.
Bryant has recently focused on playmaking over scoring, which could take away some of the advantage Kirilenko has defensively. Of course Bryant is reliant on his teammates cutting to get open and hitting shots.
Against the Suns, once Howard went down with injury, the Lakers stagnated. Players stopped hitting shots and cutting, taking away passing options for Bryant. The team needs to stick with what worked over their recent three-game winning streak.
The Lakers have looked a lot better recently but after losing Howard they'll need to play a much better fourth quarter than they did in Phoenix.
With eight straight road losses, this is an important game for the Lakers to gut out.
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Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.